Put a Stake In It: 5 Tips for Building Tension in Your Stories

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CarrieIn preparation for Halloween last week, I started watching clips of Carrie, the Academy Award-winning horror film by Brian De Palma.  In the movie, Carrie does all sorts of paranormal and frightening things.  But after a few minutes, I started to wonder: What makes the scenes, and the story as a whole, so engaging?

The answer turns out to be really simple: lots of tension.

To help you keep your audience on the edge of their seats, here are “5 Tips for Building Tension in Your Stories.”  You may not win an Academy Award, but you’ll at least never have to watch someone nod off again.

1. Foreshadow Future Events.  Building tension starts shortly after your opening.  Once the audience understands the basics of the story (characters, setting and problem), begin building tension by foreshadowing elements of the story that you intend to address later on.  The easiest way to do this is to introduce a powerful image – in Carrie, it’s a broken mirror – that offers a clue about the events to come.  If your audience suspects that something is awry (i.e. a girl breaks a mirror with her mind), they’ll keep watching.

2. Subvert Expectations.  In order to keep your audience engaged throughout the story, you have to undermine the audience’s expectations and keep them guessing about what’s going to happen next.  Here’s a hypothetical scene: a man and a woman are flirting in the elevator of an apartment building.  The man eventually asks for the woman’s phone number, but the woman refuses.  The man presses her for her number and then all of a sudden a snake comes slithering out of the woman’s shirt.  The man screams and runs from the elevator as soon as the doors open.  Unexpected, right?  All great scenes raise questions about the characters and the situation.

3. Add Comic Relief.  As a storyteller, you can only build so much tension into the narrative before your audience needs a release.  The easiest way to do this in stories is to introduce a secondary character who offers insight into the struggle.  Consider the earlier example of the snake.  Maybe in the next scene of the story we see the woman walking out of the apartment building when a snake slithers out of one of her pant legs.  The doorman sees this happen, but instead of screaming and calling the police, he pulls out a live mouse and proceeds to feed the snake.   Entertaining, right?  Good comic relief can momentarily distract the audience while also reassuring them that the storyteller understands the absurdity or tragedy of the narrative.

4. Introduce Non-Visual Elements.  Powerful images aren’t the only way to keep your audience engaged.  Sound, smell and touch can be just as evocative (think about theme song from “Jaws”).  In Carrie, the sound of locking doors seals the fate of all the students inside while also making the audience curious about what’s going to happen next.  The challenge for storytellers is that most stories operate inside a visual medium (even oral stories “paint a picture” for the listener).  One way to get around this is to use analogies or metaphors.  A good analogy will do wonders.

5. End with the Unexpected.  In all stories, the job of the storyteller is to leave a lasting impression with the audience at the end of the story.  The way to do this is often to introduce a new image or offer a final piece of comic relief.  At the end of Carrie, the audience sees a hand reaching out from beyond the grave to grab Sue, the sole teenage survivor.  The image is chilling and reminds the audience that even though the central problem (Carrie’s revenge) may be resolved, there are other problems that will outlive the story.

Pretty tense, right?

Second That Emotion: 3 Tips for Telling Emotional Stories

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Second That Emotion

A few weeks ago, This American Life (TAL) broadcast an episode entitled “How I Got Into College”, which included a story told by a man in his 30’s about his early life.  In the story, a 13 year-old boy escapes from war-torn Bosnia, only to face violence and isolation at an inner city high school.  One day, the boy’s high school English teacher brings him to an exclusive private school and introduces him to an administrator.  The boy impresses the administrator, is accepted into the private high school, graduates from Harvard and later becomes a professor at the University of Chicago.

Moving story, right? The only problem: the story isn’t entirely true.

To be fair, everyone is guilty of a little exaggeration for dramatic effect.  That bully who beat you up in middle school probably wasn’t 6’7″ tall (unless the bully was Lebron James).  But This American Life’s “too good to be true” story got me thinking: How do you tell a story that’s both honest and heartfelt at the same time?

The answer is actually pretty simple: ground your story in emotion.

To help you tell true tales that will move an audience, here are “3 Tips for Telling Emotional Stories.”  You’ll be amazed what happens.

1. Map Your Emotions.  The first step in telling a good, true tale is to identify how your emotions changed as the events in the story played out.  Did you start out feeling combative and end up feeling collaborative? Were you initially confused before you wound up feeling confident? One trick is to make an emotional flow chart to show your progression.  Your emotional journey will eventually be the journey you’re going to take your audience on, so be as specific as possible.

2.  Show Emotion Through Action.  Stories often fail because the emotional content doesn’t match the physical actions, so once you know the emotions at play, ground your story in what happened.  For example, instead of saying, “I was really sad,” tell us, “I got a text message in midtown and cried until snot was dripping onto the floor of the D train as it pulled into the Broadway-Lafayette station.”  More interesting, right?  The more specific you are about what happened, the more emotional the experience becomes for the audience.

3.  Offer a Moment of Transformation.  Stories aren’t just a series of events – they’re journeys of personal transformation.  To leave your audience moved, all you need is to provide a final moment that shows how far you’ve come.  As I discussed in an earlier post on resolutions, the easiest way to do this is to return to the opening scene.  Maybe you were evicted from your apartment of thirty years after a long fight, only to find an apartment directly across the street?  Bring us full circle and we’ll see the impact directly.

Pretty moving, right?

Good to Great : 7 Steps to Improving Your Storytelling

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7 steps to improving your storytelling

As a storytelling coach, I often hear the same question from students: How do I become a better storyteller?

As is the case with any pursuit, it all comes down to practiceSee our INFOGRAPHIC below.

Storytelling is one of the most innate human activities – people tell stories in one form or another every day – but it takes work to hone your craft.  So to help you shape your stories, here are “7 Steps to Improving Your Storytelling”.  The exercises won’t turn you into David Sedaris or Spalding Gray overnight, but try these every day for a month and you’ll notice the benefits.  And it’ll be way easier than learning to catch flies with chopsticks*.

1.  Keep a daily log.  The first step to becoming a better storyteller is to record events as they happen.  Set aside at least half an hour each day, preferably in the morning or late at night, to write in a journal.  When you write, it’s important to stick to the facts as much as possible.  Avoid passing judgements and drawing conclusions.  Be specific (paint a picture), honest (don’t lie!), and personal (explore your stakes), and you’ll quickly find that the journal will become a source of material for stories.

2. Sharpen your listening skills.  Listen to the stories that your friends and family tell.   Try to identify the component parts (character, setting, problem, stakes, conflict tension, crisis, climax, consequences) of every story.  As I mentioned in a previous post, the fastest way to become a better storyteller is to become a better listener.

3.  Record and transcribe the story.  One of the best ways to practice storytelling is to record yourself telling a story.  Once you’ve finished, do something unrelated for an hour or so and then come back and transcribe the tape verbatim.  The transcription process will help you identify verbal tics (‘um’, ‘uh’, ‘like’, etc) in your speech pattern and will offer insight into the strengths and weaknesses of the narrative.

After you’ve read over the transcription, ask yourself: Does the story interest me?  If I were a complete stranger, would I listen to the whole story?  If the answer to either question is ‘No’, don’t despair.  That’s where Step 3 can help.  

3.  Outline the story.  Once you’ve recorded and transcribed your story, outline the story.  Break the story into scenes, draw pictures, or use a story map (see here and here).  Experiment with different outline techniques and you’ll find one that works best for you.

4.  Turn the story into a pitch.  You should be able to summarize your story in a one sentence pitch, so practice doing this with every story you tell.  Pitches should be simple and should suggest big moments or events (i.e., “the time I almost failed out of college” or ‘the time I peed in my pants in front of my high school rowing team”).   The simpler the pitch (ten words or fewer) the better.

5. Try a story out in a social setting.  Pitch your story to friends in a social setting and see if anyone wants to hear the story.  You’ll quickly figure out what your audience finds interesting.  Once you’re feeling comfortable with the story, try performing it at an open mic.

6.  Identify a theme.  As I’ve mentioned before, a theme (i.e. redemption, love, betrayal, etc) will often appear in a story after you’ve told it a few times.  Once you become aware of the theme, edit the story so the scenes work in service of the theme or themes.  You’ll be amazed at what happens when you take the time to edit properly.

7. Add a new twist.  After you’ve performed a story several times, add a new twist.  Start in a different place or add in a new detail and see how your audience reacts.  The change may or may not work for the story, but you’ll learn something in the process.  And that’s the point, after all.

*I’ve never caught a fly with chopsticks

7 steps to improving your storytelling

Good Story, Anyone? 3 Rules to Make Your Presentations More Relatable

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Ben Stein

When I was a senior in college, I gave a presentation on a term paper I’d written.  The professor called me up and I started gushing about my findings, moving from slide to slide and furiously writing notes on the blackboard.  After ten minutes, I was out of breath. I put down the chalk, smiled, and looked out at the class.

“Any questions?” I said.

One student in the back was doodling in his notebook. A student in the middle was tracing his hand.  Another student was completely asleep.

The professor smiled and told me that I did a good job, but as soon as I sat down I felt like Ben Stein in the clip below.

Has this ever happened to you?  If so, it’s time to make your presentation more relatable.

Here are three rules to follow to make your stories and presentations more enjoyable and personal.   I can’t guarantee that people won’t fall asleep, but at least they won’t do it because of you.

1.  Edit.  Cut out useless adjectives, complicated nouns and superfluous explanations.  Your audience is smart, so treat them with the respect and intelligence they deserve. They’ll do the same for you in return.

2.  Have a Destination.  All good stories and presentations need a destination.  If it seems like you don’t know where you’re going, people will lose interest.

3.  Know Your Audience. If your audience is expecting a talk about politics and you tell them about how you hate golf, people will be confused and upset.  Unless, of course your story is about playing golf with a politician.  Be a savvy presenter.

Follow these simple rules and you’ll never have to ask, “Anyone, Anyone?” again.*

 

*Unless you’re doing a Ben Stein impression.  In that case, go crazy with it.

That’s So Funny! 5 Ways to Inject Humor Into Your Stories

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Louis CK

I’m a huge fan of Louis C.K.  Louis is a masterful performer whose spot-on observations of the human condition and casually neurotic delivery have won him praise from comedians (Chris Rock is a big supporter), filmmakers (he’s won 3 Emmys) and fans.  But what’s his secret?

You guessed it: storytelling.

It took Louis over 25 years to perfect his jokes and stories, but it doesn’t need to be such a struggle for new storytellers.  Here are ‘5 Ways to Inject Humor Into Your Stories’ for anyone who wants to lighten the mood of their stories.  With enough practice with these techniques, you may even get your own HBO Special.

1.  Find the game.  The game is the fun or funny thing played as a pattern.  In storytelling and stand-up, the game presents itself as an unusual character trait that recurs throughout the story.  Did you wear the same “Black Sabbath” t-shirt to high school every day, even though your friends told you that it smelled?  Did your boss at Rolling Stone play Michael Bolton at his? The audience may not laugh the first time, but when you return to the game later, you’ll at least get a chuckle.

2.  Use dialogue.  It’s ok to paraphrase, but the best stories include dialogue.  Dialogue allows you to recreate the speech patterns and mannerisms of the characters in the story.  Maybe there’s a guy in the office who warbles when he talks or a waitress who has a high pitched voice. The better you can recreate characters in the story, the funnier and more relatable they become.

3. Obey the rule of 3’s.  Western audiences are accustomed to hearing funny things in a three-part pattern.  While most one-liners (jokes) have a two-part structure – set-up and punch line – you have more time in stories to set up something funny and return to it later.  Introduce the game, play it, then re-introduce it a third time.  You’ll blow your audience away and get a big laugh.

4.  Play to the top of your intelligence.  Don’t make jokes that infantilize your audience.  If something isn’t funny to you, it probably won’t win over your audience.  You may get a small guffaw, but it’ll end up being more distracting in the long run.  Be smart and play smart.

5.  Don’t force your jokes.  If a joke doesn’t land, move on.  It doesn’t necessarily mean that the joke isn’t funny, it just means that this particular audience doesn’t find it funny.  Flopping is part of being a good storyteller, so don’t worry too much.   Everything in life that’s worthwhile takes practice, and you’ll eventually find the funny thing.  Just remember that it took Louis C.K. almost 30 years to kill in front of an audience, so be patient with you stories.

Feeling funnier already, right?

10 Ways to Use Storytelling to Improve Creativity at Work

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Office stories

It’s Tuesday morning.  Your boss shows up at your desk two minutes after you arrive and says that he needs a “creative solution” to a problem.  You rub your eyes because you were up late catching up on Mad Men and Game of Thrones and now you’re slamming coffee just to stay awake. But just when you think your boss is gone, he pats you on the back, smiles and says, “I need your answer in an hour.

Situation sound familiar? This is where storytelling can help.

Here are “10 Ways to Use Storytelling to Improve Creativity at Work” that will open your creative mind to re-examine everyday issues.  You may even mend your relationship with your boss in the process.

1.  Embrace the problem.  All good stories (and good businesses!) have problems.  Embrace them.  Take a moment to write the problem down in detail.

2.  Understand the stakes.  Write down what your company stands to gain or lose as a result of dealing with the issue at hand.  Be specific.  What would be possible if you address all components of the problem and the client gets more than they bargain for?

3. Ground the problem in your surroundings. Understand the institutional forces at play.  What prevailing attitudes are present that may be contributing to the problem?  What attitudes can you tap into to fix the situation?

4.  Identify sources of tension.  Take a moment and reflect on tension with clients and within the office.  What are the sources of tension for your boss? What about for the company?

5. Look at previous conflicts.  Write down a few other conflicts you’ve had in the office relating to the issue at hand.  See if you notice a pattern developing.

6. Look at previous crisis moments.  Crisis moments offer the biggest breakthroughs for companies.  How did people in the office react during the last crisis?  How does your boss handle a crisis? What about your boss’s boss?

7. Pick apart the themes.  You may notice themes (i.e. accountability, trust, integrity) appearing.   Write them down.  Pick them apart.

8.  Don’t judge yourself.  Judgment is the enemy of story and a hindrance to problem solving.  Make note of your judgments of yourself.  Then quit it.

9.  Don’t judge your boss and/or the company.  It won’t help you.  Seriously.

10.  Embrace the problem again.  The precise solution may not be there, but the problem will seem a lot more manageable.

7 Tips to Become a Better Storyteller

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Seinfeld

Want to become a better storyteller?  Start by becoming a better listener.

A few nights ago, I came across an article by Maria Popova over at Brain Pickings.  I was half-asleep, but I started reading anyway.  In the article, Maria recounts advice on how to become a better appreciator of music through active listening.  I perked up a bit.  According to experts, she says, active listening can help awaken the mind from its “tuned out” state.  Just as I read this, light bulbs started going off: the same rules apply to storytelling!  I raced over to my desk and started writing.

To help you hone your story listening skills, here are 7 tips to becoming a better appreciator of stories.  Have a read then go tune in to stories.

  1. Be aware of the stories around you.  Turn on the radio, pick up a newspaper, or even listen in on a conversation on the subway.  Practice recalling stories you’ve heard throughout the week, either to friends or to yourself.
  2. Pay attention to pacing.  When listening to a story, take note of the presenter’s pacing. Start to become aware when a story slows down and speeds up, and what happens to your attention as a result. Be mindful of how the narrator is shaping your expectations through pacing.
  3. Look for patterns.  There are archetypal stories (i.e. rags to riches, voyage and return, rebirth) that we hear again and again throughout the day.  As a listener, pay close attention to the types of stories you see and hear each day.
  4. Develop a vocabulary for stories.  Character, setting, problem, stakes, crisis, consequences.  The list goes on.  Practice breaking down stories into their component parts.  If you can do this, you’re halfway to becoming a great storyteller.
  5. Use your whole body.  Engage your body and your mind simultaneously.  Pay attention on all elements of a storyteller’s presentation, from the speaker’s words to his/her body language, vocal and tonal shifts.  Words are often the tip of the iceberg; you may miss the real story if you’re not listening with your whole body.
  6. Be objective.  As you listen to a story, distinguish between what happens in the story (the events) and everything else (judgements, feelings and interpretations).  Make sure to clear your listening so you don’t bring your own preconceptions, stereotypes and judgements to bear on another person’s story.
  7. Engage with personal experiences and beliefs.  This may sound like a contradiction to #6, but hear me out.  Humans connect to good stories because they resonate with us on a personal level.   It’s important to be open about how the story moves you based on your past experiences.  Just make sure to avoid projecting your experiences onto someone else’s story.